Cocktail: Poor Red’s Golden Cadillac – Histories in a Glass

Created in 1952 by bartender Frank Cline at Poor Red’s

INGREDIENTS – 1 part Galliano Liqueur Autentico, 1 part white crème de cacao, 1 part fresh whole cream, a pinch of freshly grated nutmeg

PREP – shake with ice to chill and then strain

GLASS – a chilled coupe and/or short highball glass, no ice

GARNISH – freshly shaved dark chocolate

I have a particular relationship to this cocktail, the signature drink of Poor Red’s in El Dorado, California. You see, my diapers were changed on the Poor Red’s bar counter by my parents while they sipped Golden Cadillacs, waiting for a dinner table to open up.

But many years before then…

Painting of Poor Red’s and a gold-colored Cadillac
artist uncertain given the cropping of the image

As the origin story goes, in 1952 a newly engaged couple from San Francisco pulled up to Poor Red’s, located then as it is now, at 6221 Pleasant Valley Road, near the intersection of Olde Highway 49. They were driving their new gold-colored Cadillac up to Lake Tahoe to celebrate. Boasting of their engagement and new car to the bartender, Frank Cline, they asked if he would invent a cocktail in their honor. Cline’s answer was The Golden Cadillac, served in two glasses—a coupe for the future wife and short highball glass for the future husband. The drink became a mainstay at Poor Red’s. They sold so many Golden Cadillacs that, way over in Italy, the company behind Galliano Liqueur noticed their Northern California sales were the largest of any region in the world! As the Poor Red’s website notes:

This single restaurant bar, located in a tiny Sierra Nevada Foothill town of 1400 residents, serves more Galliano Liqueur than any restaurant chain, liqueur retailer, hotel chain, or cruise line in existence. Most bars will have a bottle sit on their shelf for years. At Poor Red’s, the average life span of a 750-ml. bottle of Galliano is only an hour and a half.

Impressed, Galliano regularly ran advertisements for the cocktail in their international marketing throughout the 1960s and 70s, making the Golden Cadillac famous around the world, and Poor Red’s an unexpected destination in an unexpected place.

The old site where Poor Red’s stands was originally established in 1857 as a Wells Fargo stagecoach delivery station, serving lingering hopeful miners and a fledgling residential population. It was then used variously as a doctor’s office, brothel, and grocery store, before finding its lasting use when it was converted into Kelly’s Bar in 1927. In 1948, ex-Marine Red Sadler, Kelly’s business partner and the keen tastebuds behind the bar’s signature BBQ offerings, won the establishment off Kelly in a dice game after the two men disagreed over how the place should be run. And Poor Red’s it became. Poor Red and his lavishly nick-named wife, Rich Opal, ran the place for many years. They decorated the walls with large original murals depicting employees, patrons, even their dog! A very local-oriented establishment, situated along what was once the most heavily trafficked route into Gold Country from San Francisco.

Red and Opal Sadler ran Poor Red’s until they sold the business to David Chapdelaine in the early 1990s. It’s not clear when Chapdelaine moved on and the business fell into the hands of Michael and Brenda Adams—perhaps in the early 2000s. But apparently the Adams didn’t give the place the same loving attention as their predecessors, and weren’t much for legalities. After too many years not paying their bills, in April 2013 they were finally arrested, and the following August formally charged, for tax evasion, insurance fraud, as well as failure to make contributions to the Employee Development Department, provide Worker’s Compensation, or even pay some employees at all. In addition to paying restitution fines of $600K each, Michael Adams was sentenced to 6 years 8 months in prison, and Brenda Adams to 5 years 8 months probation. Poor Red’s, the classic roadside joint that had by then long since become the most internationally known and locally beloved bar in El Dorado County, was shuttered. Locals were heartbroken to see the historic bar closed, but applauded the punishment leveled against the couple who had destroyed it.

Then in 2016, Poor Red’s was renovated and reopened with love, enthusiasm, and backing by two locals, brothers Mike and Jeff Genovese. Neither had restaurant experience. But they had capital from their years working in wealth management and other businesses. They partnered with Mike Hountalas, who runs one of the Genovese’s favorite El Dorado Hills dining spots, the Purple Place Bar and Grill. Hountalas has a lifelong history in restaurants—his family owned San Francisco’s legendary Cliff House.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

My parents still live in Placerville, the central “large” town in El Dorado County, dating back to the same gold rushed 1850s as nearby El Dorado. Placerville was first in the area to have a Main Street with a multistory hotel (The Cary House, still in operation), mercantiles, taverns, brothels of course, eventually a theater, even a small “opera house,” and a court. Placerville was where justice was meted out over claim disputes or other grievances, which is how it came into its former name, Hangtown. Prior to then it was called Dry Diggings. This rather literalist approach to naming the town eventually settled on the more inviting, and placid, Placerville.

It was at the Cary House in 1849—then called the El Dorado Hotel and made of wood (a fire would soon necessitate the brick rebuild)—that a lucky gold panner brought his earnings one day and asked the cook to make him something extravagant and expensive. The costliest ingredients on the menu were eggs, bacon, and oysters, so the cook put them together and this combination has since been known as the Hangtown Fry. One can still order it on Northern California menus aware of this history—like Sam’s Grill in San Francisco, for example, which opened in 1867 and still serves the same basic menu in basically the same way.

My childhood was only incidentally, yet quite effectively, steeped in this history. It stood around me in old buildings from the era, still in use. My neighborhood friends and I played in the open mining caves in Gold Bug Park. My grammar school teachers seemed to bus us annually out to Coloma to see yet again the spot on the South Fork of the American River where James W. Marshall found gold in 1848, inadvertently changing American, Mexican, and the continent’s west coast Indigenous Peoples’ histories forever.

But I have no conscious childhood memories of Poor Red’s, other than the story told to me of my questionably public diaper change. I moved away from Placerville when I was eighteen, not yet of age to belly up to the bar. And so finally, this past October 2022, while in town visiting my folks, I went with an old friend to Poor Red’s for my first ever Golden Cadillac.

It was not impressive.

But here’s a key thing: It’s not trying to be. Poor Red’s is a dive bar and BBQ joint rolled into one, and proud of it. Though some nouvelle cuisine elements now make it on to the menu, the kitchen primarily offers meaty comfort food and the expected fried sides in a committedly unpretentious atmosphere. The service is genuinely friendly and devoid of either boorishness or preciousness. It’s as dependable as the changing seasons, and as steady as the north star. Locals fill most seats most of the time, many of them regulars.

This is good. And it’s increasingly uncommon. For modern mixology, there are now endless excellent destinations offering complex drinks adorned with delicately placed sprigs and cooled by crystal clear, carefully chiseled ice. I love the artistry of these cocktails, and the attention to finding just the right ingredients, as espoused by bartenders like Yana Nogid and Katye Skye of Manhattan Zodiac. Likewise, reading Julia Momosé’s beautiful book, The Way of the Cocktail, I’m inspired by the intentionality she advocates around assembling cocktails and presenting them with care and consideration—a way of honoring both those who made each ingredient and the drinker seeking a unique experience. There are times when that’s exactly what I want.

And other times I just want a messy hamburger and greasy onion rings. As prepared and served by Poor Red’s, The Golden Cadillac sits as neatly next to such a meal as a vanilla milkshake—and looks just like one, too! In fact, when I took my first sip of the legendary drink, “spiked milkshake” were the first words out of my mouth. The Galliano marketing team had given the drink an air of elegance in its advertisements, featuring the coupe glass and forgoing the stalky highball glass that could just as well hold milk or tap water. But even the Poor Red’s choice of coupe makes no effort to be more than a practical means of delivering the blender-mixed, pitcher-batched concoction to your mouth.

When I got it into my head to make the drink at home, I wanted to go for a more refined version. Nothing against Poor Red’s. But a key ingredient of their Golden Cadillac is the atmosphere of the place itself. The curved horseshoe bar. The noisy crowd. The smell of BBQ and fried onions. Stone in the walls and dust in the air going back to the 19th century. My tiny San Francisco apartment, old and creaky though it may be, is none of that.

So I procured a 375ml bottle of the requisite Galliano Autentico, their gateway product and key Golden Cadillac ingredient for which there is no substitute. I looked to the legendary Tempus Fugit for a white crème de cacao, but from their website it seems they only produce the more popular dark crème de cacao. I eventually tracked down a bottle of Giffard Crème de Cacao Blanc. Neither that nor the Galliano were easy to find! Finally I picked up a small carton of organic fresh whole creme, uncracked nutmeg, and a nice chunk of dark chocolate.

All I was missing was a coupe! My glass collection already takes up more than its fair share of space, so, if I was going to add a coupe to it I wanted it to be special. I could have gone the industrial Poor Red’s route. But I knew this coupe would eventually be put to use for other cocktails as well. I looked for something with the right combination of modest dimensions and vintage design. Eventually I found an antique Hawkes Crystal coupe, circa late-1940s / early-1950s, and in perfect condition.

Et voila!


This simple cocktail is more than its ingredients. Swirling in The Golden Cadillac one finds whole swaths of American history going back to 1848—the Gold Rush and all the logistical and sociopolitical complexities of the thirty-first state joining those thirty before it. There are connections to San Francisco, itself a web of histories. There’s fraud and money laundering. Small town tradition and local pride. Business partners settling their conflicts with a roll of the dice. A hopeful couple driving a new car toward a new life. Extravagance and humility. Cocktails and diapers.

If whiskey is history in a bottle, cocktails are certainly histories in a glass.


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